Good Life

Salon owner styles new outlook after tragedy cuts close to home

Owner Emily Lykens recently opened Gentleman’s Salon in State College.
Owner Emily Lykens recently opened Gentleman’s Salon in State College.

Emily Lykens tapped open the email, skimmed its contents and broke into a grin, its brightness reflected by the display’s glow. When the screen went black, her face smiled back at her.

She had gotten the lease.

“Our lives just changed forever,” she told her boyfriend, who was vacuuming at the time. (She made him turn it off.)

When Lykens began her career more than a decade ago, she had thought about eventually owning her own business. One day, she thought, the idea in the back of her head would fizz and froth into existence. As a hair stylist, she had had experience with turning a whim and a few words into something real.

Now her new reality stared back at her through a tiny screen, one that would change her life again before elation could settle in for good. Two hours later, it lit up.

It was her father.

“We were so excited to hear that ‘yes, we got this,’” Lykens, 32, said. “Then we got some of the worst news you could ever hear.”

Her older brother, Harry, had died. He had been fighting health complications for a while, Lykens said, but his death was unexpected.

Elation, still fresh, had curdled into a wound. Lykens had gained a business but lost a brother on the same day.

“It’s been great,” she said, her voice brittle. “But personally it’s been rough, too.”

Irony, unobliging in its disregard for time and place, stung like dried tears. June 14 was a sunny Tuesday in State College. The high temperature was 76 degrees Fahrenheit — by all accounts, a beautiful day. No clouds hung over the horizon.

The funny thing about haircuts, she said, is that they make you feel like a new person. Customers, toting personalities and hairstyles of all kinds, have sat in her chair, trading stories and laughs before leaving a bit lighter than before. Sometimes levity just takes getting a little off the top, a trimming of the rough edges.

About a month after Lykens peered into that screen, she opened The Gentleman’s Salon. Located in the former home of Lion’s Cut, another hair salon, the new tenant still specializes in men’s haircuts, though all are welcome inside the clean, white interior at 421 E. Beaver Ave.

Lykens said it’s the conversation she enjoys the most. It’s trust snipped down to its most elementary form: One’s look and, technically, one’s life are literally in another’s hands. The salon does offer facial and neck grooming.

“You have to have some confidence that you take pride in your work and you know what you’re doing,” she said. “Because if they can sense fear, then they’re going to be less likely to have that trust in you.

“We do a lot of college students, so it’s just nice to hear where people are from, what they’re doing with their lives, why they’re going to school,” she added. “People are very appreciative when they get a haircut. There’s just something about it.”

But with most of the students away for the summer, business has yet to pick up. Lykens isn’t worried, though — getting a haircut is a practice in unpredictability. Some people like to stick to a schedule, she said, while others roll out of bed and into a salon on an impulse. Often, a mirror is involved.

“There are people who get their hair cut every two weeks,” Lykens said, “and then there’s somebody who wakes up randomly after four months and they’re like ‘OK, I need to get this cut off today.’ ”

Caprice defines more than hair styles, however. After Lykens graduated high school, like many 18-year-olds, she didn’t know what she wanted to do. The rest of her life stretched before her, vast and amorphous, hunched like a Jabberwock blocking her path. But with help from her mother, she stepped through the looking glass into reality.

“I was kind of ‘Do I pursue that? Do I pursue this? What do I do?’ ” Lykens said.

Her mother, Josephine, suggested cosmetology school. “If you like it, great; if you don’t, you’ll always have that as a backup,” she told Lykens, who enrolled and found, to her luck, the former to be true. She enjoyed talking to people in a relaxed setting, she found, and styling hair came naturally to the creative Lykens.

But after a spell she decided to switch careers, going to nursing school and trading her scissors for scrubs. She became an LPN, dove into books about biochemistry and pills and tried to put to memory their tongue-twisting names and sundry effects. She admitted feeling stressed.

Medicine felt more restrictive, she said, and work never left her. She missed doing hair. She missed her clients.

When Josephine died in 2014 — she, too, had been battling health problems for some time — Lykens found herself at a crossroads. She was hurting, working in a field that felt foreign. She needed a change.

A year later, near the anniversary of her mother’s death, she decided to go back to cutting hair.

“I wanted to go back to where I could have more fun at work and be a little more creative,” she said. “I’ve been doing hair for so long that it’s almost second nature for me. With everything that was going on personally, I just wanted to go back to something that I felt comfortable with.”

Lykens returned to styling hair at SuperCuts in State College last August. She had settled back in, but not into a comfort zone: Lykens kept her dream of being her own boss. She didn’t know when it would crystallize; she was just determined to make it happen.

In May, her boyfriend, who was working for a restaurant two doors down, told her about the property opening up on Beaver Avenue. Quickly, the pair expressed interest to the landlord and began paperwork in June. When Lykens heard the lease was theirs, she thought of her mother.

Not long after, she got the phone call from her father.

“I definitely think that (my mom) would be very proud of me,” Lykens said. “I feel like they’re both looking down on me and helping me through the way.”

Roger Van Scyoc: 814-231-4698, @rogervanscy